Closed a diary from the London Lesbian and Gay Centre. Photograph: Courtesy Hall-Carpenter Archives and UCL Urban Laboratory
If this all sounds like a blissful utopia, the reality might occasionally have been different. The centre was run by total amateurs chosen for their political categories or beliefs and not for being able to run a successful social or commercial undertaking, one former visitor told
Vice magazine in 2016. There was mismanagement at all levels, from volunteers who thought it was fine to let their friends eat for free, to bar deliveries where half the stock went straight into someones car. The abolition of the GLC by Margaret Thatcher, who had previously said the councils spending on minorities was a disgraceful waste of money represented a huge financial blow. Although enough cash was raised to buy the building in 1989, it closed a couple of years later, leaving London, in contrast to New York and Paris, without any such facility. In 2018, a campaign to set up a new community centre in east London raised 102,000, and efforts continue, albeit on a voluntary basis.
In the Whitechapel exhibition, archival material sits alongside work from a range of queer artists including
Tom Burr, Evan Ifekoya, duo Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings and Prem Sahib. Each is concerned in some way with how LGBT culture plays out in the physical world, and how queer people navigate and leave their mark on the city.
The action isnt restricted to London. Burr is based in New York, and Quinlan and Hastings travelled to 11 cities around the UK to collect flyers, health advice leaflets, and other ephemera from LGBT bars, which they present in a work The Scarcity of Liberty #2. Quinlan sees gay spaces changing, but not everywhere. A lot of our work looks at this shifting moment between what I would call gay bars and a more queer identity. And its really dependent on where you are in the country. London has a totally different clubbing culture, which is a lot more focused on queer-inclusive space. But when you leave [the city], you get a lot more old-school venues that have been going since the 80s and have a heavily male clientele.
Flyers collected by Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hasting The Scarcity of Liberty #1. Photograph: Courtesy the artists and Arcadia Missa
This skewing of queer culture towards the needs of a group that represents only one aspect of it generates mixed feelings. It was a strange experience for me and Rosie, as lesbians, to make the archive. It felt like a lot of the spaces were male-only. But even people who have issues with gay-bar culture have a sentimental attachment to these spaces. They play a huge part in your youth and your coming out, as kind of the only place you can go to. So you can be critical of them, but you also really value and have a lot of respect for them.
Central Londons gay clubs took on an almost mythical status for Sahib while he was growing up in Ealing. I used to tune into cable from the next-door neighbours and Id stay up till midnight to watch 10 minutes of Freeview off the gay channel, which had footage of places like Heaven and
the Fridge. I had relationships to those spaces without even having been there.
I did eventually go to those clubs, he says. But the reality of what was accessible to me was cruising spaces. You ended up gravitating towards places like public toilets. Its different now, because youve got the internet, but at that time that wasnt so much part of our lives.
Steam power Prem Sahibs Helix IV, a pierced plasterwork inspired by Chariots sauna. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Southard Reid
Sahibs Helix IV memorialises yet another kind of space: Chariots gay sauna, in Shoreditch,
which closed in 2016. It is a plaster replica of one the classical reliefs that decorated the walls above the pool and jacuzzi, but pierced by metal studs and rings, as though it was the body of one of the patrons.
Chariots wasnt simply a sex venue, says Sahib. It was more nuanced than people might expect. Not everyone there was looking for sex. It was also quite intergenerational. I met people there who didnt identify as gay or exclusively as men. I dont want to romanticise this too much, because there were problems certain bodies were excluded, drugs were also an issue. But, in some ways, I met a more diverse range of people than in the gay bars I go to.
The mixing of very different people in a place ostensibly dedicated to sexuality seems to be a defining feature of queer spaces, and is one reason the digital realm cant make up for the absence of them. Vassilios Doupas, co-curator of the show, contrasts them with apps. The purpose is you go online and you want to have sex. Its like, OK, Im hungry and Ill go to McDonalds and I have food. Thats fine, Im not criticising it. I do it. But what Im saying is that these places were about something else. What was that? Bringing people together, cultivating relationships. It was about being with other people and realising that youre not on your own.
Victory dance at the former Joiners Arms in Tower Hamlets. The sites developer must replace it with an LGBT venue. Photograph: Dosfotos/Rex/Shutterstock
This sense of belonging, always a precious commodity in a city the size of
London, is something people are evidently willing to fight for. After a lengthy campaign, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was listed, Grade II. And following local pressure Tower Hamlets council has ordered the developers of the Joiners Arms site to create an LGBT pub with the same opening hours. In an audio recording that forms part of the show, Amy Roberts of Friends of the Joiners Arms strikes a note of indignation: Its so ridiculous that it took three years of unpaid labour from a group of people to get a council to realise that what we were saying at the very beginning was true. That this space was vital, this space was important and it shouldnt be taken away from us and couldnt be taken away from us. Its almost as if that planning system isnt set up for members of the community to get involved, and definitely not for a group of queers.